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Book Review: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

A multigenerational epic about a Korean family in Japan.


Pachinko

Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 489 pages



Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.

So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja's family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.




"A woman's lot is to suffer." There is a lot of suffering in this novel. Pachinko spans 80 years and four generations of the Baek family, Koreans who move to Japan during the colonial era, and remain there, through the war and the reconstruction, through the rise of Japan as an economic power, and through marriages, births, deaths, and tragedies.

Ethnic Koreans in Japan have suffered a long history of discrimination. Small numbers came to Japan during the colonial era, when Korea was under Japanese occupation, and more came in the turbulence of the 40s and 50s. They were never considered Japanese, and treated as a despised underclass, relegated to ghettos and low-status occupations, and subjected to stereotypes about Korean criminality, dirtiness, promiscuity, and violent tempers, which of course led many Koreans in Japan to actually becoming involved in organized crime, having few legitimate careers open to them. Sound familiar? To this day, third and fourth generation Korean-Japanese are still not considered Japanese citizens — they are "registered aliens" who must periodically renew their registrations, and can theoretically be "deported" to Korea, even if they have never set foot outside of Japan and don't speak a word of Korean. Sound familiar? There is a process by which ethnic Koreans (and other resident aliens) can become naturalized citizens of Japan, but it's difficult, and for Korean-Japanese it evokes complex sentiments about identity and citizenship.

This is the cultural backdrop of Pachinko. Baek Sunja (like Japanese, Korean names are surname-first) is the beloved daughter of a poor fisherman in Korea in the early 20th century. Her poor but stable family life is disrupted when a handsome, educated gentleman rescues her from a gang of Japanese schoolboys who were about to rough her up or worse. Koh Hansu is a wealthy Korean who was educated in Japan. Quite taken with teenage Sunja, they begin a secret romance, and Sunja soon becomes pregnant. She is delighted, thinking her handsome lover will marry her. To Sunja's shock, but certainly not the reader's, it turns out that Koh Hansu is already married and has a family back in Japan.

Hansu is actually a decent guy, though — kind of. He offers to provide for Sunja and their child, and wants to continue to be part of their lives. Sunja, however, is a very traditional sort of girl, even if she did let herself get seduced by an older man who she thought was going to marry her. She is unwilling to shame her family by accepting a life as a rich man's mistress, and so she rejects him and resigns herself to single motherhood, which is barely better than a death sentence.

At this point, Sunja is rescued by a kindly but sickly young Korean Christian minister named Isak ("Isaac"), who offers to marry her and claim her child as his own. Sunja accepts the offer, and becomes his devoted and faithful wife. Isak brings her to Japan, and the saga of the Baeks goes on for several generations, with the book taking us to 1989, where an elderly Sunja, now a grandmother, looks back on her life and its many tragedies from a place that is more comfortable than she could ever have imagined, in her Korean fishing village before the second World War.

Pachinko is a complex and well-plotted story about identity, ethnicity, and family. The story of the Baeks is the story of Koreans in Japan, suffering discrimination and heartbreak, living and working in Japan, speaking Japanese, but never being Japanese. Japanese claim they can spot Koreans, yet the fully-assimilated Koreans who speak perfect Japanese walk among them invisible. The feelings of Sunja's sons and grandsons have for their country which is not "their" country (born in Japan, they still have Korean passports) is complex, and plays a part in the tragic fate of one son who has inherited Sunja's inflexible morality. Meanwhile, Koh Hansu, never completely out of her life, has done very well for himself as a prosperous businessman married to the daughter of a Yakuza crime boss, from whom he inherits the organization. Sunja's other son becomes rich as the owner of a chain of pachinko parlors, a casino-like business dominated by Koreans and thus of course considered disreputable and associated with organized crime.

Pachinko's author, Min Ja Lee, is Korean and spent years living in Japan to research this book, so it has the ring of authenticity, and Lee writes very compellingly about complicated characters with complicated motivations. If you like multigenerational family soap operas and historical fiction, two Mitchells come to mind by way of comparison: David Mitchell and Margaret Mitchell. If you like either of those two authors, you won't find this book disappointing.






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